After three years of study, school visits, correspondence, and interviews, we at the Great Schools Partnership are proud to share our Guide to Grading & Reporting for Educational Equity. This guide highlights the central practices that schools can use to ensure their grading and reporting systems help them build a nurturing, equitable, creative, and dynamic culture of learning.
I’ve spent many hours working with colleagues on this project, but the topic has not always been one I cared about. I was a classroom teacher for 17 years, and during that time I was passionate about many things: I created writing and reading workshops and sought every opportunity to help my students publish their work; I designed projects that brought my students’ learning into the real world; I found ways to integrate nature into the study of writing and literature; I stayed up late working to connect the classroom experience to each student’s dreams and goals, trying to tap into their interests and help them see their own strengths. You know what I was not passionate about? Grading.
You know what I was not passionate about? Grading.
I saw grading as an irritating necessity that muddied my work with students and pushed me to reduce complex situations to simplistic numerals or letters. The school where I began my career had no systems for making grading consistent; every teacher figured out their own method. Later, I moved to another school that had done some work to create consistency, but many teachers still did their own thing. I did my best and focused my attention on the other aspects of teaching.
The passage of Maine’s proficiency-based diploma law in 2012 forced me to rethink this attitude. As the director of studies at Noble High School, I worked with other school leaders to redesign our approach to grading, endeavoring to create a system that would consistently give students clear information about what skills they had mastered and where they still needed work.
This was a challenge because grading has so much power over students’ lives. Any shift or innovation will benefit some students while removing advantages for others. Because the ramifications are so serious, and because grading systems have persisted unchanged for approximately a century, any attempt to evolve or transform grading can be highly controversial. Many schools that have attempted to do so have learned this the hard way. After working on Noble’s system for two years, I went on to work with other schools on similar challenges, and I’ve seen a wide variety of approaches and impacts. Over the years, one central question has fascinated me: How can schools direct their energy toward the grading practices that matter?
When we talk about grading, we are really talking about culture.
I’ve seen schools spend tremendous energy making grading changes that don’t seem to make anything work better for students; I’ve also seen schools transform their culture through shifts in how they approach grading. It was these latter observations, most of all, that changed my own attitude. What I’ve learned, by looking at and visiting so many schools, is that when we talk about grading, we are really talking about culture. Grading and reporting systems transmit the learning culture within a school, whether intentionally or unintentionally. They speak to students much more loudly than what we say.
It does not matter how many posters about growth mindset and grit are on the walls of a school; if the teachers, through their grading systems, are sending messages such as once you fail, there is never a way back or I don’t care; it’s your fault, then students will perceive that the talk of growth mindset is hollow. Conversely, if students share a perception that teachers won’t give them a passing grade until they show strong work, but also that teachers will push and support them until they can do it, then students will develop a belief that they can build on their mistakes and keep learning.
Likewise, it does not matter how a school talks about diversity and equity; if idiosyncratic and uncalibrated grading practices allow some teachers’ grades to be influenced by implicit bias, the students will get the message loud and clear that some are seen as more capable of learning than others.
When new teachers arrive at a school and learn its grading practices, it presents a powerful opportunity for the transmission of the school’s culture.
This is why grading and reporting are so important; the culture that a school creates is a tremendous factor in how much students will learn and grow, and grading and reporting play a part in how culture is created within a school. When new teachers arrive at a school and learn its grading practices, it presents a powerful opportunity for the transmission of the school’s culture. (If teachers arrive and learn that they are expected to make up their own policies and practices, that is transmitting a culture, too.)
At Great Schools Partnership, we are privileged to work alongside the faculties of many schools as they endeavor to build vibrant cultures of learning. In schools where this culture exists, the faculty believe they can teach all students to reach high standards and have designed school-wide systems to help students get there. The grading and reporting systems in these schools—whether they are traditional-looking systems, narrative-based, or 1- 4 systems—play an important role in helping schools create a culture of high expectations and nurturing support. Our Guide to Grading & Reporting for Educational Equity describes practices that various schools have utilized to do this work.
All of the schools featured in our tool are engaged in this complex work, and all of them would say that their work is not complete. However, each of these schools and districts has found some success in the ongoing struggle to build a culture of learning.
Schools that succeed—even imperfectly—in creating this culture are among the greatest wonders of the world. Their grading and reporting systems are just one element of the intricate, dynamic systems of support, nurturance, encouragement, challenge, and enrichment that they have built for students.
Ready to get started? Check out our Guide to Grading & Reporting for Educational Equity.